NEW DELHI — Leading doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Rishikesh and Government Medical College Srinagar have called for mandatory front-of-package labels on packaged food products to stem the rising burden of cardiovascular disease and stroke in India.

The experts participated in a national session ‘Addressing Cardiovascular Diseases through Front of Package Labelling in India’ and emphasized the need for simple measures such as front-of-package labels that can make a paradigm shift in the food consumption pattern of the country and, as a result, avert an impending Non-Communicable Disease crisis.

Participants included Samia Rashid, Principal, Government Medical College, Srinagar and Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Allied Medical Sciences, University of Kashmir; Rubeena Shahen, former Technical Director, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India; Khalid Mohiuddin, Associate Professor and Head, Superspeciality Hospital, Government Medical College, Srinagar; Pradeep Aggarwal, Associate Professor, Department of Community and Family Medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh and Salim Khan, Professor, and Head, Department of Community Medicine, Government Medical College, Srinagar.

There has been a significant increase in deaths due to cardiovascular diseases in India in the last two decades. Many of these deaths and cardiovascular incidences are linked to dietary risk factors indicating a clear correlation with excessive intake of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium.

Cardiovascular disease has emerged as a deadly killer, and Salim Khan cautioned that nearly 5.8 million people or 1 in 4 Indians are at risk of dying from a Non-Communicable Disease before they reach the age of 70.

“Of these, more than 28 percent deaths are related to heart attack and stroke- a number that has gone up 2-3 times in the last two decades,” he said.

“Processed and packaged foods are a direct risk factor for obesity, heart, and circulatory diseases. We are up against a multi-billion-dollar food industry, and unless the Government takes urgent steps to enable consumers to make informed choices and packaged foods healthier, we will end up with a growing unhealthy population at risk of dying or experiencing cardiac and circulatory issues at a much younger age.”

Salim said that people need to understand clearly and simply what is in the food that they are buying. Food labels have to interpret the nutrition information for consumers across age, income, and literacy levels.

Calling attention to the fact that 56 percent of cardiovascular deaths in men and 48 percent in women are due to dietary factors, Khalid Mohiuddin said that there is a spiraling rise in the consumption of these nutrients of public health concern, largely driven by the plethora of choices of processed and ultra-processed food products with unhealthy nutritional profiles available in the market. These have poor nutritional value and are full of anti- or negative nutrients.

Reports also indicate that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the food and beverage industry thrived in low- to middle-income countries, including India, and expanded its market of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, said Khalid.

“Children have developed unhealthy eating habits, and the junk food industry did nothing to safeguard their health,” he said. “It is time now for stringent measures, and we want to call for urgent adoption of strong warning labels on the front of every food packet.”

Rubeena Shahen talked about the proactive steps taken by the apex regulator of India.

“Our food environment needs to change drastically if we are to reverse the health crisis and safeguard our future generations,” she said.

“The Indian Government is committed to decisive steps in that direction. Since the introduction of the Food Safety regulations in 2011, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has issued several regulations to make food safer and more nutritious.”

Recognizing the importance of strong front-of-package labels as one of the most efficient tools of influencing consumer behavior to alter dietary choices and reduce their vulnerability to Non-Communicable Diseases, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is in the advanced stages of finalizing a draft labeling regulation.

“Currently, an Food Safety and Standards Authority of India Working Group is determining thresholds for nutrients of concern (sugar, salt, and fats), in consultation with civil society groups, industry and nutrition experts. They are working towards a viable model for India,” Shahen said.

(With inputs from ANI)

(Edited by Amrita Das and Saptak Datta)



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